Prospective Labour leader Liz Kendall (right). © Laura Lean/PA Wire/Press Association Images

For Labour, things can get even worse—I'm backing Liz Kendall

"My choice is someone who is frank and clear about the challenges we face"
June 17, 2015

In 1997, I asked a seasoned Labour MP if the Tories were then where Labour had been in 1983. He thought they were in a worse position. Not only had they lost their local government base—essential for recovery—but, as he put it, “if in 1983 you had removed the Labour Party from the political spectrum a significant strand of beliefs and ideas would have remained unrepresented, whereas if you removed the Tories now, the only thing that would not have a voice in the Commons would be English nationalism.”

There are three things the new leader of the Labour Party should take from that conversation. First, protect your base, as even at a dark moment things can still get worse. Second, define yourself and Labour’s aims in an outward looking and inclusive way, rather than just railing against some other group. Third, prepare for the unexpected, be that the rise of nationalism, resentment over immigration or a global banking crisis.

Let’s face it: Labour lost not just badly but spectacularly badly. The most poignant moment of the campaign was when a young woman on the Today programme said: “I just don’t know what they are on about.” And she clearly wasn’t the only one.

When we won elections in the past we got some things right, and we’d better remember what they were. In the mid-1990s, the Labour Party began to express its values using short, resonant slogans that conveyed deep insights. “Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” was a line that the voters understood.

The new leader has to remember that in between polling days we must convince voters that Labour represents them, understands their daily struggles, and reflects values they share.

We can talk all day about constituency boundaries, swings needed, and differential voter turnouts. But they are means to an end.  The new leader’s starting point has to be our vision for the future. What can we, a movement and a political party, offer to voters?

During the election campaign I was quizzed by 10 year olds at a school. What is the difference between the Reds and the Blues, one of them asked? I told them that when life works out the way you had planned it, your mum and dad have a job, you have somewhere to live and you are healthy, then you probably can’t tell much difference in your daily life. But when things don’t work out the way you had planned and you can’t do everything on your own, then there is a big difference.

The new Labour leader needs to be able to explain our values in precisely these clear-cut terms and show how these are reflected in our policies. In 2015, we had plenty of policies but they didn’t amount to a vision. Freezing energy prices, increasing the minimum wage, more housing—all that could have been brought together in a narrative which is not about envy, anger and reverting to collectivism—but about saying that in hard times we focus on the things which disproportionately affect those on lower incomes.

So my choice is someone who is frank and clear about the challenges we face, has her eyes firmly fixed on the future, shows a steely backbone and is prepared to stand up and challenge narrow interest groups in parliament and across the country. That’s why I am backing Liz Kendall.